Games about Community: Ohmygod Are You Alright? (Anna Anthropy), Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis), Tusks (Mitch Alexander)

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 5.02.00 PMOhmygod Are You Alright? is a flash-augmented Twine piece by Anna Anthropy about the experience of being hit by a car and the recovery process afterward. The details of physical pain and the dehumanization of the hospital are unpleasant enough, though I suppose they could have been even worse.

But the game’s most lasting and unresolved pain pertains to how Anna feels about her community: lonely, cut off from support, no longer enjoying the energy and communal celebration of her earlier time with Twine. She touches on this in the ruleset for A Wish for Something Better, but Ohmygod goes into it more deeply. She mentions feeling surprised by the forlorn hope that being hit by a car will make people pay attention again. There’s wistfulness, too, about having been at the forefront of a movement that now contains a lot of other practitioners.

If games are not great at NPCs and individual relationships, they’re often downright terrible on communal responsibility and community formation, but Ohmygod made me think about two other games I’ve played recently that touch on the function of community in our lives.

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hanafeelsHana Feels is a game supported by public funding in Scotland, and created by Gavin Inglis, author of some rather lighter-spirited IF published through Choice of Games (Neighborhood Necromancer). As a game about Social Issues that nonetheless manages to do some cool interactive storytelling, it belongs alongside The Spare Set and Choice: Texas.

The game concerns self-harm, but it does not put the player in the position of its main character. Instead, you play as a sequence of other people in Hana’s life, including a friend, a boss, and a couple of volunteers. This has a couple of good effects. Hana’s self-harm is discussed but never shown, which may be less likely to kick off bad responses for some readers; and the player can’t simply put a stop to the harm by fiat.

One of the strong messages of the game is that no individual person is in a position to save Hana. She needs support and understanding from multiple directions at once — and one friend’s failure may not be decisive. What’s more, it’s easier for her to start with the support of a stranger than to take her issues to her mother.

Hana eventually finds out about a support group that she can join, and that group has its own politics, rules, and problems: it’s useful for some, but it might not be for her, and she has to decide what she is going to do with it.

The kind of community described here is a loose one: not all of these characters know one another, and some of the support Hana receives comes from government or charitable institutions. But official sources can be important, when they’re available. Which is not always. It’s interesting, by which I mean infuriating, to contrast broke-Hana’s medical options with the ones available to broke-Anna in Ohmygod. Whatever else is going on with Hana, however much she is out of money and in danger of losing her job, she has the NHS. Going to see a GP is an option for her, in a way it’s not for a lot of even middle-class Americans.

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Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 10.10.03 PM

Tusks is a dating sim about gay orcs. It’s not finished yet, but so far the first day of game-time is playable, and the rest of the project is being supported via Patreon.

Tusks offers NPC autonomy as an option, just as erotic content is an option. This means that the NPCs don’t simply do whatever you want them to do, and their cooperation is not a guaranteed reward for correct gameplay. (Matt Boch did a great GDC microtalk on why NPC autonomy is so desirable in romance games.)

On the first day, you join up with a group of orcs traveling together away from the Uá, a big meetup that sounds a bit like the early Althing and a bit like Burning Man. You need to settle on a name for your group. You can propose a name, and then everyone votes — and they can vote you down. In my playthrough, the name I suggested was disapproved by the others, and then it took two more rounds of voting on other characters’ suggestions before we finally settled on something. By the end, I was voting “yes” to the proposal just out of a weary desire to pick a name and get it over with. But that itself felt realistic and true to group dynamics in a way that games rarely accomplish.

Along the same lines, when you first join the group, its leader says he’s going to go ask around about you and see if you have a bad reputation before accepting you to travel with them. You haven’t done anything in the game at this point, so I don’t think you can get excluded here, but the presence of this element in the fiction reinforced the sense of a functioning community with realistic boundaries.

Meanwhile, the character drawings include older and overweight bodies and one orc who has lost an arm. The game doesn’t make a huge deal out of this, but it’s certainly a change from the slender, youthful anime figures that one finds in a lot of dating sims. At the same time, there are multiple orcs with similar stocky figures; we haven’t been given a chocolate box containing exactly one of each body type. As a result, the characters have a certain unglamorized “this is just who this person is” quality that I really like.

There’s a lot of dialogue even in the short demo, quite a bit of which concerns the change in orcish communities over time. It’s a not-at-all hidden way of talking about queer communities, and in particular the fact that being treated badly by the rest of society tends to produce intense bonds on the inside. One of the orcs reflects how decreasing marginalization can lead to a loss of solidarity and identity. The discussion around this was pretty nuanced and well-observed. By the end of the first day, I felt more invested in the group I was part of than attracted to/invested in any one romantic prospect.

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Anna’s sense of being let down by community resonates. I see a lot of similar discussion elsewhere. People talk about not feeling safe in a community because it includes people or permits behavior standards that make them uncomfortable. People talk about how community X or Y is exclusive, or self-destructive, or stuck in the past. People tweet in frustration about how no one seems to respond (or not enough people, or not in the right way) when they call out for help. One of my email correspondents last week said his response to the whole idea of community is basically “LOL WHUT”.

And in response to all this I feel a little like the white-haired orc in Tusks, wanting to have a long rambly talk about why community is hard and why maybe it doesn’t always work the way people hope.

I grew up in a couple of strong communities, the kind where if you are broke people will bring you meals, and if you lose a loved one someone will take on the phone tree duty of notifying all your friends, and if your relationship looks unhealthy from the outside someone will ask pointed, nosy, concerned questions. As a teenager I spent weeks of my summer visiting other community households, or being visited by my friends. Our parents jokingly referred to this as the community foster system, but it gave us a chance to practice semi-independence from our parents, and to have additional mentor-adults who were neither relatives nor teachers. Parts of Bee reflect that experience, though in an altered form.

They were also communities where personality and ideology clashes could do a lot of damage. Joining the community was an official commitment — like, you’d have to spend a while getting to know people and express interest and be accepted. If you did something contrary to community ethics, there was serious blowback. If two members didn’t get along that well, the community meant they’d stay in touch and continue not getting along that well for the next twenty years.

Those tradeoffs exist even in less extreme communities. ifMUD reads as cliquey and exclusive to some newcomers, and it’s also the one place in the IF world where I feel like I can ask for help if I need it. I don’t really know how to disentangle those. A lot of MUDders actively make an effort to be welcoming to newcomers, but there’s no way to visit a room full of people who’ve known each other for 10-20 years and not feel a little out of the loop.

I’m not sure how you get the good of this without the bad, the strength and cohesion without the drama and exclusiveness. In particular, sometimes I have a hard time squaring being-in-community with someone with showing respect for them as an individual. Do you respect their choices if those choices conflict with community standards? Do you owe it to your community to follow their behavior norms even if those norms don’t really suit you? Where’s the bright line between showing appropriate levels of concern and minding someone else’s business for them?

With Those We Love Alive gets into this and essentially concludes that community is a bad bargain, that you can only relate to others individually or you’ll wind up complicit in group violence.

I’m not quite that pessimistic about the situation, but I do spend a lot of time not knowing what to say to people about their community frustrations, and wishing I understood the dynamics better.

In any case, I’d love to play more games whose content or mechanics had something to say about community, about connection and inclusion, about communal ethics. More games that modeled second-order relationships — how you feel about people because of their relationship to your friends, rather than only their relationship to you. (Prom Week does this a bit, though it’s not always easy to see the gears turning.)

13 thoughts on “Games about Community: Ohmygod Are You Alright? (Anna Anthropy), Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis), Tusks (Mitch Alexander)

  1. I wonder whether communities based around art forms such as interactive fiction might be more disappointing than others, at least to people for whom art is a way of expressing themselves at a very personal and (entirely or almost) autobiographical level. When you show yourself in a very personal way, you want to meet understanding and sympathy — and people generally recognise this and try to provide it. (We don’t always succeed, but on average, people aren’t awful at it.) But when you express yourself in a work of art, you have objectified your subjectivity and people will start reacting to it in a completely different way: they will judge the work of art and criticise it, but also maybe just ignore it if it doesn’t interest them, write it off because of a typo on the first page, write about it without mentioning the personal issue you were trying to get across, and so on. The presentation and reception of a work of art is a really bad place for highly personal forms of understanding and sympathy to take place — unless there are very strong community norms in place that make it a good place, but such rules would be necessarily fragile and hard to communicate to outsiders, let alone enforce.

    Our entire approach to art nowadays is perhaps based around this fundamental cruelty: that we ask the creators of art to be as personal and sincere as they can be, but then as an audience reserve the right to interpret the result not as an act of person-to-person communication, but as a work, as part of an oeuvre that we can judge as an object and use as we like. (This is why I, personally, like to keep my art well away from autobiography. For my autobiographical output, I choose a different seeting and a much more limited audience.)

  2. Your writing about community neatly illuminates something I’ve been sort of feeling my way around for a while, so thanks for that. My personal experience with communities has always been ‘lots of demands, no support’ and now you’ve made me think about how that relates to my writing it explains *a lot*.

  3. I think sometimes it’s okay to be a ghost and float between communities, because the imperative to follow truth and authenticity doesn’t wait for others’ different journeys, and there will never be one group identity that will affirm all that you are without conflicting with other aspects of your being. So, we offer some imperfect version of our true visions where and when we can, and then we move on—and sometimes someone else will see a piece of our vision as one small part of the pattern of theirs, and in that moment I think there is community.

  4. I’ve been a novel writer for many many years and I’m moderately familiar with some parts of the online community (and how cultural norms can suddenly trip you up between one English-speaking nation and another), but I’m only just beginning to understand that the IF community has some major differences to the general-writing community eg. It’s a shocking breach to NOT name your betas publicly, while in the novel-writing world you’d usually only mention your support people in a final, published draft – and only for full-length novels (and you’d have to check it was okay with them, especially if they weren’t a real-life friend). And it seems much easier to find obligation-free beta readers for games (with novels and stories, it’s almost always tit-for-tat). And so on. Both communities have a LOT of mental illness and a lot of support for sufferers (or, at the very least, acceptance), and a spectacularly wide age range.

    My family is pretty fantastic, and most of us live in the same city. That’s my best community, and the one that hurts me most when I think I can rely on someone in such-and-such a way and then discover that I can’t. As a rule, I’d rely on one-on-one people for emotional support, and for “the internets” in general to help me feel like I’m still part of the human race (I work largely alone).

    Felicity Banks

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